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General Interest

The Last Word: C.J. Skender, CPA

By Kim Nilsen
april 2008

Adjunct professor,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University

I don many hats as a faculty member. At various points in my life, I've wanted to be a priest, coach, disc jockey, accountant, professor, taxi driver, bartender, musician, actor, paperback writer, talk show host and stand-up comic. My classes resemble (VH-1's) Pop-Up Video. I try being eclectic and colorful. Mixed into my lectures are music and movies and sports trivia and candy. Interspersing those things into the classes, I think, makes them more exciting.

I encourage students to climb the ladder of success and take their family and friends along, to not be afraid of failing, to express their gratitude to others often, to give something back, and to tell those closest to them that they love them. I preach that their reputation is their most valuable asset and wealth is measured not just by dollars and cents but by the people they have around them. I quote Harry Chapin to convey the importance of living each day to the fullest: "It's got to be the going not the getting there that's good."

I grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., in a first-generation college family. My father, an insurance man, once remarked that teachers have pretty nice lives. He passed away when I was in sixth grade. How my mom raised three kids still amazes me. We talk daily.

I relate to lines from songs. While working for Haskins & Sells, I kept hearing Billy Joel's song "James" from Turnstiles: "Do what's good for you or you're not good for anybody." I liked auditing but felt I lacked passion. I was soul searching.

Mary Anne and I became man and wife in 1978. I casually mentioned grad school on our wedding night - timing is everything. During the second year of the MBA program at Duke, I interviewed with Deloitte Haskins Sells and was within a day of accepting a job, this time in tax. But the dean came to me and said another faculty member was taking a year's leave of absence and would I like to stay on and teach for a year. One year has turned into three decades.

I always tell students, "Find a job that you would do even if they didn't pay you." For me, that was teaching. I've taught 20,000 students and more than 400 classes. Thirty former students have won CPA medals.

I've been labeled hyperthymestic. I wish! Try compulsive and obsessive, sleep deprived, exceedingly organized. I always wear a suit - that's the Big Eight influence - with braces and French cuffs. I wear certain ties on certain days. I arrange my dollar bills in serial number order, my socks and underwear are alphabetized. I chart everything imaginable.

My biggest professional challenge continues to be balancing the scorecard. Jim Croce sang: "There never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them." You can't be perfect, but you try. And I tell students to balance their lives. If you are taking five classes, give each one an hour. I do the same with music. Each day I try to listen to two new songs or one new artist and learn something that might appeal to me or that might excite my students.

I believe CPA firms are landing many, if not most, of the best college business students. A couple superstars will always opt for investment banking or consulting. Better students look to accounting as a challenge because it is a difficult subject to master. If a student wants an accounting career, there is no better place to start than in public accounting. It's stable. You get experience, exposure and flexibility not found in most other entry-level positions.

Teaching awards are merely a byproduct of enjoying what you do. I've been lucky enough to receive two dozen recognitions from three outstanding schools - a veritable embarrassment of riches. I've taught in Europe and Africa - exhilarating. The accomplishments I'm most proud of - a successful marriage and three happy children who tend to my inner landscape. The Beatles summed it up best: "In my life I've loved them all."

—As told to Kim Nilsen

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